Top law firms come together to launch revolutionary social mobility programme

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By Laura Manning

City law firms have thrown their weight behind the first profession-wide social mobility scheme to ­provide hundreds of work experience places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘Prime’ has a variety of signatories, ranging from magic circle firms to regional practices and a good smattering of Scottish firms (see box, below).

“If we were going to do something with impact it had to involve the entire profession in the UK,” said Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley in an interview with Lawyer 2B’s sister magazine The Lawyer (12 September).

Prime was born out of Morley’s brainchild of a collaborative approach towards social mobility. It was launched officially on 10 September  with 23 top firms signed up.

The most striking aspect of the programme is that each firm has to commit to at least half the number of places it currently offers in training contracts, with a target for the wider profession of 2,500 places by 2015. With approximately 4,900 training contracts awarded each year, this will certainly be a ­challenge.

If Prime is to have any value, then the firms need to offer good-quality work experience. To ensure this, Prime members will be required to ­conform to certain ­principles.

“We’re not talking about making coffee and photocopying,” Morley told The Lawyer.

Dick Tyler, senior partner of CMS Cameron McKenna, said: “If all we do is plonk them in a room for a week they won’t get much ­benefit from it. It needs to be a ­centrally organised ­programme for them which is skills-based.”

Each firm has pledged to offer 30-35 hours of contact time per ­individual, with a programme that informs students about ­opportunities as well as developing their skills.

Students are eligible for the scheme if: they attend a state school between years nine and 13; qualify for free school meals; or they would be the first generation in their immediate family to attend university.

Key to the success of Prime will be longitudinal research on the effectiveness of the scheme. The National Foundation for Educational Research has been tasked with tracking and auditing the entire ­programme.

Morley admits that the Prime scheme alone cannot deal with the issue of social deprivation. “It’s like a huge great ball of string,” he said, “hugely complex and you never know which one to pull on – child poverty, education, whatever.”

The scheme has garnered the ­support of former MP Alan Milburn, chair of the ­Government commission on social mobility, the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, which ­produced a report in July 2009 (Lawyer2B.com, 14 ­September).

Milburn said in a statement: “The lack of social mobility in our society is not a problem that can be solved by any one organisation or any one ­sector. Sections of our society who play a part in the problem, and who have a stake in finding a solution, need to take collective responsibility and work together to provide meaningful solutions.

“The legal profession is a great example. If the cycle of unequal ­distribution of opportunity is to be broken, and the most talented people from all backgrounds are to be given a fair chance, the ­sector needs to act. And through the Prime programme this is what it is doing.”

Prime signatories will work towards individual targets, but were reluctant to be drawn on the direct benefit to their firms, as the project is so long-term.

Brodies managing partner Bill Drummond said: “Recruiting kids from the same background is not a good thing and if this gets one or two in a [cohort] starting to think ­differently about whether they join our firm, then great. But nobody’s attempting to hijack this at all – it’s a community thing.”

#A longer version of this article ­previously appeared in the 12 September  edition of The Lawyer